According to Christian counselor and teacher Michael Emlet, reading the Bible “back to front” can help us better apply it to our lives today. In this excerpt from his new book, CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet, Emlet shows the importance of reading God’s Word in an active fashion. PLUS: Keep reading to find out how you can receive a FREE copy of CrossTalk.
The books of the Bible are meant to provoke a response in God’s people, whether it be worship, joy, conviction of sin, deeds of justice and mercy, praise, prayer, or concern for the lost. All Scripture invites a response to God.
When we read the Bible, we are not merely listening to a conversation God had with his people several thousand years ago, trying to extract some benefit for our own lives. We are a part of the same story line. Israel’s Messiah is our Messiah. The apostles’ Lord and Savior is our Lord and Savior. That’s why it’s critical to see the Bible as God’s unfolding story of salvation that centers on Jesus Christ.
If the Bible is one story with Jesus and his kingdom as the focal point, how should this impact the way we interpret and use Scripture in ministry? Here are some thoughts.
To interpret and apply the Bible wisely, we should develop the habit of reading Scripture “back to front” and “front to back.” What does it mean to read the Bible back to front? It means rereading any text (particularly Old Testament passages) in light of the end of the story — the coming of the kingdom in Jesus Christ.
I wrote portions of CrossTalk on the eve of the much-anticipated release of the final book of the Harry Potter series. I knew that when I finished that book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the ending would forever change the way I read and understood the details of the earlier books. Sure enough, details that seemed so significant were no longer so once I knew the entire story. Details that had been easy to overlook now grew in their significance in light of the story’s end. “So that’s what it meant!” “So that’s what was really going on in that scene.”
We can have this back-to-front experience watching movies as well. Have you watched A Beautiful Mind, the story of mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash? I remember thinking early on in the movie, If I were John Nash, I would be paranoid, too, given all the stress and secrecy of his government intelligence job! Of course, we later come to learn that his hiring by the government, the code-breaking work he was doing, and even some of his friends (e.g., his college roommate) were fabrications of his mind. What seemed so real, even to the viewer, were actually hallucinations. The end of the story forced me to see earlier parts in a new light.
Similarly, knowing the end of the biblical story means we can never read the earlier parts in the same way. That’s certainly true for the way Jesus and the New Testament writers read and interpreted the (Old Testament) Scriptures. Knowing how the story ends, we ask, “What difference does the death and resurrection of Jesus make for how I understand this passage?” The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the climax of redemption initiated in the Old Testament and the sure foundation for the life of the newly formed church. The New Testament writers consider what the reality of the new creation (ushered in by Christ’s death and resurrection) should look like in the life of the church, even as they anticipate the ultimate end of the story, the return of Christ. So, whether we find ourselves in the Old Testament or New Testament, we expect to discover an organic connection to the person and work of Christ, with multifaceted implications for the lives of God’s people.
It’s also true that we must read the Bible front to back. This means we take seriously where a particular text falls in the historical outworking of the story for at least three reasons. The first reason has to do with the idea of the Bible as “practical theology,” introduced in the previous chapter. The Bible is, in fact, an evolving practical theology by God’s design. God reveals himself personally to his people in specific contexts over time. God shapes his Word to the evolving needs of his people. This prompts us to ask, “What does God reveal about himself in this book or passage that helps the recipients of his message?” How wonderful to realize that God does not reveal himself “generically” but in multifaceted and specific ways! Sitting with the details and historical context of a passage primes us for application as we observe God’s Word matched to specific human need. Further, it encourages me to ask how I might step into a particular story and see how God’s particularized grace connects to my situation.
Second, in a related way, reading front to back guards us from oversimplifying the plotline of Scripture. The coming of the kingdom in Jesus as the climax of the story doesn’t mean that you “shoehorn” him artificially into every text. In our zeal to acknowledge the redemptive-historical character of Scripture, we don’t want to insist that every passage is about Jesus explicitly. Rather the themes of each book, tailored to its historical context, contribute implicitly to our understanding of the kingdom. Each passage or book adds its distinctive voice to a swelling chorus that says, “New creation has come through King Jesus!”
Third, details matter. Think about an accident scene investigation. The end of the story is clear; the debris lies on the road to prove it. But the details of the story matter. One driver fumbling for his cell phone. Another driver checking on her kids in the rearview mirror. The overlooked turn signal. Exceeding the speed limit. All these details contribute to the total understanding of the story. These details lead somewhere and are important in and of themselves.
In reality, the ending of a story only makes sense in light of what has come before. The more captivated we are by the details, the more glorious will seem the story’s climax. The more puzzled we are by the details, the more clarity (and perhaps surprise!) comes with the climax. The more we understand the significance of the details, the more significant the climax.
If Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story in his first and second comings, we need to pay attention to the ways the redemptive story builds up to Christ and then flows out from him through the Spirit. We will appreciate what God has done that much more. We should keep in mind that ours is a “crockpot redemption.” God slowly, patiently works out his redemptive purposes over thousands of years and only “when the time had fully come” did God send his Son (Gal. 4:4). We would do well to pay attention to this gradual unfolding of his character and work so that we might savor his amazing grace and mercy even more.
To summarize, we need to begin our interpretation by thinking first of what it meant for its original audience — reading front to back. We ask the question, “What might the first readers have understood this text to mean at that point in redemptive history? ” This reminds us that there is a progressiveness to God’s revelation and we cannot ignore the specific context into which God’s Word first comes.
Next, we reread the text in light of the end of the story — reading back to front. We do have to “go back to the future”! Ultimately, what is that future? The book of Revelation — the return of the King and the consummation of his kingdom — shows where history is going.
This “bidirectional” reading does justice to the unity and diversity of Scripture. We will listen for the particular voices and themes of individual books, but we also will pay attention to the ways they fit into the Bible as a whole and, more specifically, into the progressive plan of God’s redemption.
The Centrality of God’s Mission
Ultimately, seeing the Bible as a unified story of God’s redemptive mission helps us avoid introspective, individualistic application. The endpoint of redemption isn’t a redeemed and transformed individual life (your own or another’s) — it is the restoration of all things!
Have you caught that immense vision? Does it saturate your life and ministry? We can settle for too little in our use of Scripture, even when we genuinely look to the Scriptures to guide our lives.
If we view the gospel in shortsighted and individualistic terms — “Yeah, I know Jesus died for my sins, but what has he done for me lately? ” — we are more tempted to grow cynical and self-absorbed. But if we view this life as co-laboring with our King as “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-20), we are strengthened to press onward and outward, expressing our love for others in sacrificial ways.
Excerpted from CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet by Michael R. Emlet, published by New Growth Press.
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In the Old Testament, her testimony stands out as an example of great love, sacrifice, and redemption. But was Ruth the Moabite breaking the law?
Every once in a while I get an “aha” moment and I can’t turn my mind off, thus preventing me from a good night’s sleep. Last night’s “aha” moment came as I was reflecting on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform.
The tendency of faith leaders advocating for a compassionate approach to immigrants is to appeal to the numerous “be kind to strangers” texts in the Hebrew Scriptures. The problem with this approach is that it elicits a universal response from the other side, “Yes, but those were legal immigrants. I’m talking about illegal immigrants. Since illegal immigrants are lawbreakers, they shouldn’t have any rights. And if you think they should, you’re just another godless liberal seeking to undermine the moral fabric of America … etc., etc.” It occurred to me that one of the most famous and beloved women in the entire Bible was an “illegal” immigrant. Her name was Ruth.
I’m not making this up. Deuteronomy 23:3 is clear, “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord forever.”
If you’re still not convinced that descendants of Moab were ordered to be excluded from the congregation of Israel, take a look at verse 6, which says, “You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all their days forever.” With this in mind, isn’t it strange that the hero in the story of Ruth is Boaz, a man that showed kindness to a Moabite woman? We look at the story today and know intuitively that Boaz was a hero, but we often forget that Boaz could have very well been considered a villain to the religious leaders of his day. After all, they might have said, the law forbids people like Ruth from being included in Israeli society — and they would have been right.
Kind of strange isn’t it? God writes a law and then commends people for breaking it? I can think of two other examples where this strange paradox occurs. One example is Joseph, the husband of Mary. Once Joseph discovered that his wife was pregnant with an illegitimate child, the Law of Moses said that Mary should have been stoned (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). Isn’t it a little odd then that the Holy Spirit, speaking through Matthew, calls Joseph a “just man” because he wanted to put her away secretly (Matthew 1:19)? Or how about when Jesus commended David for doing what was unlawful — his word, not mine — on the Sabbath because of a pressing human need (Mark 2:25-26)?
Yes, we’re supposed to respect the law, and I’m not saying that undocumented immigrants are right to break into the United States illegally (I happen to believe that nations do have a right to protect their borders); but there comes a time when we have to ask the question of how much should “respect for the law” determine a Christian’s response to those that suffer from economic forces beyond their control?
Let’s not forget that it was famine and death (read: economic hardship) that compelled Ruth to migrate with her mother-in-law Naomi. The same story could be told millions of times over today. If God commended people for breaking God’s own laws because of compassion for their fellow human beings, what might God think of people today that challenge human laws for reasons of compassion? Think about it.
Perhaps you’ve seen snippets from the new film Legion and wondered to yourself what it’s all about. You’ve seen the biblical imagery and the special effects sequences featuring the multitude of soaring angels. All very intriguing. But when the trailer for a “religious” movie also shows an old lady snarling and crawling up the wall like a demonized creature, you know something’s not quite right. Believe it or not, that little old lady is possessed by an angel. That’s right — an angel sent by God.
Welcome to the apocalyptic world of writer/director Scott Charles Stewart, where a hodge-podge of distorted biblical elements and twisted truths is the order of the day. Legion is definitely not your father’s biblical epic.
The basic premise of the entire movie is summed up in one eloquent phrase: “God is tired of all the BS.” Stewart found this statement to be so profound that it was mentioned not once, but twice. Because God is giving up on the human race, everyone must go. Nobody is worth saving this time around.
In order to carry out the extermination, God sends His angels to do His bidding, much like the Wicked Witch of the West uses her flying monkeys. These “dogs of heaven,” as they are called (yes, they wear collars), are able to possess people like demons and terrorize others. One would think God could find a more efficient method of world destruction, but I guess this film confuses His mysterious ways for silly ones.
After my 13-year-old’s jarring confession, I talked to other youth about their impressions of God, the church, and “Christ vs. Christianity.” I quickly discovered that my son was not alone in his doubts about the integrity of adult Christians.
In my last column, I related part of a conversation I had with my 13-year-old son during the Christmas holiday break, wherein he admitted some resistance to how Christians package Christianity by emphasizing the rules and not so much the Ruler. “I want to walk with Christ,” he said. “It’s Christianity that doesn’t interest me.” His comments jarred me, to say the least.
As a result, I wanted to know what other teenagers think about his remarks, so I had a conversation with a youth group from a local church. These questions were running through my mind: Do they feel the same way? Are they drawing the same distinction he is between following Jesus and adhering to the system of Christianity? What has their Christian experience been like? You never know ahead of time how a discussion with young people might turn out, but I hoped for the best. They didn’t disappoint.
The group consisted of seven kids, ranging in age from 10 to 17, two males and five females. I could tell they weren’t sure what to expect either, so I did my best to put them at ease by telling them what I would use the information for, that no one’s name would be mentioned, and that I was not there to gather intel for the church administration or their parents. With those preliminaries covered, we plunged right in.
Our discussion started with their feedback on my son’s statement about being OK with Christ, but not so much OK with Christianity. Several in the group expressed right away that they totally understand where my son’s coming from. They see what they call hypocrisy among adult Christians who say one thing but do another. They admitted that the level of hypocrisy depends on the individual and even the church to which one belongs. They are turned off by this apparent double-speak, and their body language and tone suggested that they are indeed a little insulted that adults don’t seem to realize how transparent they really are. The “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” cliché clearly doesn’t work, and these teens seem to find this especially notable given how much adults emphasize the “what” of Christianity, while downplaying the “Who” or “why.”
Moreover, their comments demonstrate the very point they’re making. Although I asked them directly about any distinction they saw between Christ the person and Christianity the faith, they said very little about Jesus Himself; the overwhelming majority of their discussion focused on Christians, Christianity, and other faith concepts. I see this as a reflection of our own tendency to relegate Jesus to background status as we attempt to translate the faith for unbelievers and youth into a modern, hip (and sometimes hip-hop) version we feel will be more palatable to them.
The group participants see this emphasis on “what” manifested in how much they hear “the Bible says …” As someone who is very committed to the authority of the Scriptures, this idea immediately caught my attention. I wanted to know how they feel about the Bible. Do they believe it is authoritative or just a book full of suggestions for how to behave? One young lady was very clear that she doesn’t have a problem with the Bible, per se, but she gets tired of hearing the answers to all her questions begin with that phrase; not so much because she doesn’t want to know what the Bible says, but because she knows there’s not going to be any explanation of what the Bible means by what it says. The group agreed. According to them, it detracts from the power of the Bible when Christians stress the commands and instructions therein without showing them how to practically live according to those commands and instructions. They want to hear and see what the Bible says. There is a genuine interest in knowing how to apply the Word to their everyday lives — what Solomon referred to as wisdom — but we are coming up short by not encouraging them to get understanding as well as knowledge.
This particular segment of our discussion really brought home to me an observation I’ve made about churches and Christians. In many cases, we’ve not effectively made the transition from Old Testament Christians (which is itself a bit of an oxymoron) to disciples under a new covenant brokered by the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we ourselves really believe that it is no longer our works that save us, but His redemptive work on the cross? Are we grasping the explanation James gives to us about the relationship between faith and works, without also remembering what Paul says about grace and works? Our young people’s resentment of the Bible might be rooted in our own inability to demonstrate what it means to obey the Lord’s commands as an act of love and commitment rather than as a performance-based ritual.
Our discussion of Christianity led to a fascinating talk about the church. The roundtable participants showed a fair amount of confusion about the role and purpose of the church. Their overall sense is that people are going to do what they want to do, no matter what anyone says.
I couldn’t help but think how saturated even churched and Christian youth are with the concept of individual choice and everyone’s “right” to make their own decisions. I pressed them pretty hard on these points by asking them, if the power of individual choice is so strong, what purpose does the church really serve? Can we ever hope to impact people’s lives if they’re going to go their own way regardless of what’s proclaimed by the church? Their view was further tested when I asked how they think the church should try to address social problems like unbiblical sexuality, teenage pregnancy, and other issues. And what does our apparent cultural impotence mean for our command to bring people to Christ? You could’ve heard a rat walk on cotton at this point.
Even though it was obvious they didn’t know how to answer these questions, I was gratified to see them really struggling with it. Our spiritual ancestors knew that we have a faith able to withstand even the most robust questioning and debate. I’m not sure we have that same appreciation anymore for the value of a strong apologetic. And more than anything, I sensed that these young people are dying for us to boldly show them that our faith can stand up to peer pressure, sexual temptation, premature childbearing, broken families, broken hearts, corrupt politics, prejudice, poverty, and anything else they might encounter.
So how did our stalemate of silence end? As it often does when we find ourselves in a faith quandary, one voice offers a tentative suggestion. In this case, the 17-year-old male said this in answer to my challenges: “Hope. It all comes down to hope.”
I could almost visibly see the dam breaking. “Yeah, hope and faith,” someone else said. Everyone nodded their agreement. They concluded that even though people might not listen and it may not seem as if any change is taking place, we as the church can offer hope to those who would listen. And we take it on faith that somehow, with God’s help, a change can be made.
In the end, they realized they didn’t have a lot of answers, and I don’t think they necessarily changed their minds about how they see adult Christians and our issues. But I’m certain they left that room reminded that when it’s all said and done, Christianity and Christ are tied together by two indomitable forces of our belief system: faith and hope. I can’t argue with that.